Mary, Queen of Scots

Aida Vucic | 12/12/2018

Neither Mary nor Elizabeth are new characters to the screen, having inspired a number of retellings each and having been portrayed by equally strong actresses of the era. But audiences, including ourselves, seem to have an undeniable thirst for these period pieces and rest assured Mary, Queen of Scots will satisfy this thirst.

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) is newly widowed and has returned back to Scotland to assume her throne. What she comes back to is a less than warm welcome by her half-brother James (James McArdle) and his council. She’s catholic, and instantly disdained by her council of men and even her cousin across the border, Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth’s lack of heir is continually questioned and pressure is mounting for her to have a child, particularly with Mary being an imminent threat to Elizabeth’s throne should she die without an heir. Mary’s aware of her lack of popularity amongst her subjects, as well as the tenuous nature of her rightful claim to the throne of England, but rather than seeking to pander to her council or subjects, Mary seems unaffected by their antagonism towards her. Instead, she foolishly aligns herself with Englishman Jack Lowden. A charming and provocative character, who thoroughly enjoys both drinking himself into a stupor and the sexual company of male companion, he manages to father a child with Mary. Shortly thereafter, he is deposed of unceremoniously by Mary’s right hand man and third husband, but her last alliance with him is that of her undoing, and sees her displaced from her throne and imprisoned for the remainder of her life.

Whilst this is all unfolding, at the centre of the film is a tale of powerful women, who refuse to allow the men around them to act on their behalf. As one continues to sink further into despair, the other seems to disregard her emotions; to accept her fate as neither women nor man but monarch, a position that in itself is separate from gender and religion. Whilst historically incorrect, the moment shared on screen between the two women is the most powerful and slightly disorientating. The film is perfectly timed for the #metoo movement but also delves into the tumultuous relationship between women, one of simultaneously revering and abhorring.  

Ronan and Robbie are both as formidable on the screen as the women they play. Ronan’s own physical alikeness to the character aids her, as she seems to embody Mary, including the surreptitious stares and propensity for life and love. Conversely, Robbie’s arc as Elizabeth moves from an angel-like Queen to an eventual concession to a life of celibacy, ruled by distrust and hardened by a world not ready for the hand of femininity to rule. It’s masterfully directed and produced, being not only quite an accurate depiction of the time period, but also displaying an indelible visual flair in the costuming, coupled with an abundance of glorious scenery and a beautiful eye for framing dramatic dialogue scenes. This combination makes the film consistently engaging and entertaining. Robbie and Ronan’s  incredibly brave performances help to link all of these filmmaking elements, and when their affecting performances culminate in a third act confrontation that is tremendously poignant and powerful, the film reaches a payoff that viewers will appreciate.

 

Not everything is great though. The film is awkwardly paced, with the last 30 minutes cramming as much content as the hour and half before it. Some of the early scenes are quite slow, and the seemingly never-ending cycle of betrayals for Mary can dull their impact over time. But as a debut director, Josie Rourke is skilful in creating a tonally and visually appealing film, which is reinforced by its superb cast.

Conclusion

A period piece that is pretty much a meeting of Game of Thrones and House of Cards, creating a perfect storm of dramatic tension anchored in two incredible performances from the female leads.